Bonk Sprite History
It's not well known that Hudson created the chips that powered NEC's TurboGrafx-16 console. After an astonishing series of hits on the MSX and Nintendo's Famicom, Hudson was sitting pretty. They dominated the 8-bit consoles and, with their own chips inside the TG-16, they were poised to dominate the 16-bit era as well. NEC provided the manufacturing muscle and the TurboGrafx dethroned Nintendo in Japan (where it was known as the PC Engine. The PC Engine was Hudson's little baby, and was nigh unstoppable, but the success it enjoyed in Japan was not forthcoming in North America. Sega's marketing department was, to put it bluntly, kicking everyone's ass.
So it happened, back in 1989, that NEC needed a hit game. It needed a Mario or Sonic of its own and it was Hudson that delivered it. Roughly translated as Computer Man, PC Genjin rhymed with PC Engine, and the game fit the diminutive console like a glove.
Renamed Bonk's Adventure, it was released in North America in 1990 to critical acclaim. A platform game like no other, it featured a caveman protagonist who attacked his enemies by head-butting them, or by leaping into the air, spinning, and landing on them head first. It was a radical departure from the staid old Mario routine of running and jumping feet-first. It was immediately a top seller for NEC, one of their first big hits, and Bonk quickly became the de-facto mascot for the system.
Graphically it wasn't particularly noteworthy, though it offered impressively smooth animation and played very well. It was the variety of animations that impressed - it was packed with unique new moves. To climb walls Bonk would latch on with his teeth and gnaw his way upwards as fast as the player could mash the button. He was also fond of meat, and whenever he'd find a shank he'd greedily eat it, then launch himself into the air and temporarily become more powerful. By the time a player reached the first boss he'd already run, jumped, climbed, become invincible, crossed the spiny back of a dinosaur, crawled inside the dinosaur's mouth and worked his way out the other end. It was a marvelously refreshing change of pace.
When the first sequel came out in 1991 it didn't stray far from the formula. There were plenty of new bonus stages and a few new moves were added, like the ability to climb waterfalls. The big change was in Bonk's appearance. He had become softer, rounder, a little more cuddly, no doubt in an effort to improve his marketability. The second game was also very popular, and it spawned one more game for the PC Engine.
The third game offered yet more new features, like two-player modes and the ability to become very tiny or grow to enormous proportions. In spite of these additional features the game wasn't as big a success. The time had come and gone for the TurboGrafx-16, and this final Bonk was too late to sell in significant numbers.
The game and character design were so successful Hudson couldn't let them die. Several other systems received ports, and in 1993 and 1994 Nintendo's NES and SNES each saw a version using the same character sprites, though with fewer and more colours, respectively. It's never easy converting sprites from one system to another, but Hudson's artists knew their stuff. Even the GameBoy versions, whose sprites are scaled down versions of the first two PC Engine games, managed to capture the spirit of Bonk nicely using only two colours.
There are three distinct phases of Bonk evolution, and one aberration.
The original Bonk was a little rough, with a crooked mouth, large ears and a tiny tuft of hair on the back of the head. The GameBoy sprites are very similar, though obviously much smaller. While functional it didn't take Hudson long to realize they could do better.
PCEngine, Famicom, SNES, GB
The second generation Bonk is much rounder, with a smaller ear and no more hair. The PCEngine and Famicom versions are virtually identical, but for the necessary changes in palette. I'm creeped out by the SNES version, which started with the PC Engine sprite but uses so many colours that the resulting Bonk looks almost disturbingly realistic, as if they had digitized a real head and pixelled in new features. Interestingly the 2nd-gen GameBoy sprite looks worse than the first.
The aberration in the Bonk evolution is the Kaneko-produced arcade version. Released in 1994, the same year as the final SNES game (below), it was the only Bonk not to be created by Hudson. The graphics in this entirely new game, like most arcade games of the time, were vivid and excessive, with more moving objects in one short level than than in any three stages from the console games. It has its own unique style, with a Bonk that could almost be a hybrid of the first two generation sprites, despite being released four years after.
While Kaneko was awesome-ing up the Bonk legacy, Hudson was going too far with the second SNES release. New, less attractive sprites were used for the Super Bonk 2. Somewhat curiously they were now much smaller in size, almost a cross between the second generation Bonk and the GameBoy version. And as if that wasn't enough, Bonk was made into a thoroughly bizarre shape-changing weirdo (see Meat Eater, below), and shoved into a game that was a random, numbing testament to how badly a game can really suck.
This was to be the last console release of a Bonk game for nearly a decade.
PCEngine (1), PCEngine (2), PCEngine (3), Super NES (1)
The second PC Engine game, Bonk's Revenge, started a strange trend of having Bonk, now more attractive most of the time, become quite bizarre looking when he eats meat. In the original game scars would appear and Bonk would become darker, but now the effect was more striking and Bonk appeared mutated and lumpy. In an attempt to make his meat-addled appearance more striking Hudson ran up against the wall of good taste, and pushed hard. The first SNES game was positively bizarre, and the second one ended up in a string of mutants:
Hudson recently released a mobile version of Bonk, which may feature the cutest Bonk sprites ever made. Sadly, it's almost certainly going to be the last Bonk sprites ever made, as the world shifts to polygons.
These two Bonk sprites are taken from the PC Engine (left) and Super NES Bonk 1. In these two games Bonk could become huge (and tiny), with a bit of less-than-optimal gameplay foreshadowing the terrible Super Bonk 2 and its myriad transformations. They really were huge too - they're shown above 2x size, where all the others on this page are 3x.
Bonk enjoyed a half decade of success before Hudson went too far. The Super NES versions of Bonk were very much over the top, straying far from the simple formula of the original. In the last SNES release Bonk could transform into a wild variety of creatures with new skills, depending on the colour of meat he ate. In their rush to stuff as many transformations into a small space as they could the designers forgot to let the player enjoy them. The series collapsed under the weight of so many gimmicks, and was nearly forgotten until 2003 when Hudson re-released the first game, using polygons instead of sprites, on the GameCube (click for the NFG review) and Playstation 2.
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